May, (front row, 2nd from left) and her family after they fled Burma. May, (front row, 2nd from left), after she, her mother and brothers are reunited with her father.

Ithaca, N.Y. — The daughter of a Burmese freedom-fighter, May and her family escaped from the chaos, political upheaval and killings that gripped the southeast Asian country in the late 1980s. 

May now lives in Ithaca. She originally wrote the following account of her flight from Burma — she was one of 10,000 to leave the country that year — for the blog of the Ithaca-based Immigrant Services Program.

Read NPR’s story for more about the conflict in Burma.

We’re lucky to have May here. As you’ll see below, she rode on elephants, faced house arrest and slept in the jungle on her long journey to our country.

And we’re just as lucky to have the chance to share her words here. Thank you, May.

— Jeff Stein

Written by May:

Being a refugee is something I will remember for the rest of my life. When I was 7 years old, my family had to flee Burma in order to be safe. On August 8, 1988, thousands of people were killed in Burma and many were put under house arrest.

My father and other students were being targeted by the military and fled to the Thai/Burma borders. At first, my mother, four brothers and I stayed behind in our village and were constantly forced by the military government officials to keep them informed about our whereabouts and what we knew about my father. Eventually, we left our village in order to be with him.

May, (2nd from right) with her mother, 2 younger brothers and family friend in Thailand.

Most of my childhood memories are associated with being a refugee. In 1989, during the full moon festival, my mother took us to visit our grandfather. That night, she left with my youngest brother, leaving my other brother and me behind.

My grandfather spent the evening telling us fable stories about Buddha. After sleeping a bit, he woke us up and said, “Go with this person and your mom will be waiting for you.” We had never met the man he was sending us with before. This stranger then took us on a bicycle until we arrived at a hut. We rested a bit and then continued on foot. He carried my brother while holding my hand as we followed yet another route. I remember having to walk a very long time; I was very sleepy but had to keep walking.

It was dark and I remember we didn’t have a flashlight; instead the moon’s light guided us. We were eventually reunited with our mom at another stranger’s house. At that point, I had no idea why we were traveling at night. I also had no idea that that would be the last time I would see my grandfather.

After sleeping a short time, we were once again woken up during the night and this time we were taken to a fisherman’s motor boat. I still remember that boat and how its engine stopped running in the middle of the sea. There were other fishermen around us trying to catch hundreds of white jelly fish floating on the surface of the sea while our motor boat just floated around.

The stranger tried to wave down help and finally we were moved to a new motor boat. We headed to a different village and reached there at night time and that’s when I finally heard my father’s voice as he talked to my mom in a separate hut from us as I woke up. I remember how relieved I felt to hear my father’s voice and how my younger brothers and I all giggled because this made us so happy.

May, (front row, 2nd from left) and her family after they fled Burma. May, (front row, 2nd from left), after she, her mother and brothers are reunited with her father.
May, (front row, 2nd from left) and her family after they fled Burma. May, (front row, 2nd from left), after she, her mother and brothers are reunited with her father.

As a child, I didn’t think of leaving our home as hardship; I thought of it as an adventure for my family. As an adult, I now realize how terrifying and frightening it actually was. But to a small girl, it was an adventure. I attribute this to our family staying intact through this whole ordeal and the ability of my parents to shield us from the danger we were in.

As our journey continued, we spent time in the jungle as we moved from village to village. I have memories of riding elephants through the jungle near the Thai/Burma border. I also have memories of spending two nights in the deep jungle near the river bank and hearing tigers and other wild animals nearby.

During that time ,we had to catch fish for food and try to catch rides from jeeps or trucks that were passing by. Finally, we arrived at one of the student camps – a camp filled with pro-democracy freedom fighters, like my father.

At the camp, many people were getting sick with malaria and other viral infections. There was not much food; we had to live on rice soup with a little salt and sometimes fish, or wild animals we managed to catch. We also planted a lot of vegetables by a river bank. We got help from an NGO and they provided us with basic medicine and clothes. We would eventually leave this camp and spend 3 years moving from village to village and during that time I remember families losing their loved ones through malaria.

Also, since the villages were under attack, many people suffered from gun shots or accidents. My mother gave birth to my youngest brother during one of these attacks – I can still remember hearing bombing nearby. I also remember there was a full moon again.

By the time I was 10 years old we had made our way to Thailand. We tried to register with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) to be recognized as refugees which was located in its capital. At that time, we lived in a Thai village and this is where I began to learn about Thai culture and how to speak its language. My family then moved so we could live in a missionary house – it was there I began to learn English and the practice of yoga.

Many years went by between the time I left my grandfather’s house until my family and I would be officially recognized as refugees. But in 1996, we were successful in having the UNHCR register us to live in Maneloi Refugee Camp which began the process of us resettling to the United States.

We still weren’t completely safe; our house in Thailand was raided by the police while my mother was out shopping for vegetables. There were a few other refugees at our house and I remember we were questioned for many hours. We even had to show the police a library card given to us by the refugee camp as identification. We finally moved to the Maneloi Camp though signifying the end of the journey I had to take between my home in Burma and ending in Thailand, where I would become a refugee from Burma.

This is also where my next journey would begin as I would be headed to the US a year later.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.